Once inside, another man greeted Asten with a grunt, looking him over for any possible threats. When he was satisfied, he gave another grunt and led Asten further inside, through the parlor and up a narrow staircase. At the top, they arrived before a large door, behind which subdued murmurs suggested there were more than just a few people in attendance.
The man opened the door, and a sudden, bright light flooded Asten’s vision, leaving him blinking and disoriented. The noise from the voices grew to a more festive level, where excited cheers erupted from time to time.
Finally getting back his bearings, Asten stepped into a large hall filled with tables, where a wide assortment of men and woman were engaged in pensive discussion, alongside a wide range of games, all of which were being overseen by staff dressed in dark shirts and green vests.
Everywhere, the clink of coin and gold suffused the room with an excitement and decadence that made Asten’s heart skip a beat.
The grunting man gave a final soliloquy, pushing Asten forward before he turned back and walked down the stairs. For a moment, Asten was unsure of what to do with himself, and so just stood in the entrance, spellbound and paralyzed.
“Your first time, young master?”
A smiling man, dressed like the other staff-members, although with an added short-coat, which made it clear he was of a higher station.
“Y-Yes…” Asten stammered, trying to look as if he knew what he was doing. It was not working.
“No need to be so nervous, young master. This establishment is here to provide excitement and comfort to our costumers, and we aim to please. Could I be so bold as to ask the name of the young master?”
“It’s Asten, my name…” he said, clenching his grip on the bag a little harder.
“I see… My my… Are you perhaps the young apothecary who has been making a splash in town these days?”
“That’s me… I think,” Asten said, looking down with abject embarrassment.
“How marvelous! The master of the Bason family has been hoping to make your acquaintance, master Asten. I shall see to it that you will be well looked after.” The man made a few quick hand-gestures, and soon a pretty young woman in a dress, styled to match the outfit of the other staff, walked up with a gentle swagger.
“Master Asten, this is Jelene, she will see to it that your every need and desire is met,” without missing a beat, the man turned to the woman and said, “Jelene, this is master Asten, he’s a personal guest of the house.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, master Asten,” said the woman, her voice soft like chocolate, as she curtsied.
“L-Likewise,” Asten stammered, trying his best not to stare to hard. He had never been this close to someone so pretty…
“I will leave you in Jenene’s capable hands, master Asten. Excuse me, as I go inform the head of the house of your arrival.”
“You really don’t—” Asten tried to stop the man, but he had already taken two steps back while bowing, before turning with a flourish and escaping into the crowd. Amazed at his speed, Asten was startled when something nestled into the crook of his arm.
Turning, he looked straight into a set of deep eyes, in which a certain amusement was evident. “So, master Asten, what would you like to play today?”
Swallowing once, Asten summoned his courage to say, “I was told you have a great dukor table.”
“Indeed we do,” she said, the smile in both her eyes and mouth widening, “It is in fact one of our main attractions. It is a rather high-stakes game, though. For your first time, I’d suggest something a little less… stimulating.”
She infused the final word with unspoken promises, enough to make Asten’s mouth run dry. He had to blink a few times before he had the mental fortitude to say, “N-No… I would like to play dukor.”
“As you wish,” she said, pursing her lips. With a gentle tug, she led him through the crowd towards a small table where a few of the best-dressed people in attendance were focused on the intricately designed tablets that they each had in front of them.
She stopped him a few steps short, leaning in to whisper in his ear, “This round is about to end. Pay close attention, master Asten.”
The feel of her breath in his ear made Asten shiver, but he bit into his lower lip, focusing hard on the table and its players. The slight taste of iron in his mouth helped him ignore the very pretty woman beside him.
Each player held two tablets, each with two sides; one side facing towards the player, and one side facing toward the opponents. Thus each player had four sides in total, two of which were visible to themselves, and two that only the opponent could see.
The aim of the game was to outwit and out-bluff the opponents, using what you knew of your own hand against what you could see the others had. At least, that was normally how it was played. However, Asten had been instructed to play in a slightly different manner.
“I’ll stand with the house,” one player said, tipping his tablets over and crossing his arm. The other players turned to the green-vested staff, who stood at the table broadside, who as the only one had three tablets.
“Does anyone wish to challenge the house for master Boron’s bet?” The ‘manager’ of the house said. No one did. The manager gave a nod, the took half of the players coins, placing it behind his three tablets, and then returned the other half to the player.
The round ended with a showdown between the remaining players, where the one with the highest total between the four sides of his tablets won. Before the next round began, the house manager took out one tenth of the ‘house pool’, which then became the basis of the next game.
In this manner, the house both facilitated the gambling, as well as secured its cut of the action. Standing with the house was an option that all players could take, if they were uncertain of their own hand. They would offer up half of their bet, in return for protection from the house.
Anyone could challenge the house for the bet, but doing so meant that the house would participate in the showdown, and very likely win the entire pot with their three tablets against everyone else’s two. It was thus virtually guaranteed that no one would risk a challenge.
“Are you ready, master Asten?” The warm breath in his ear was titillating. Ignoring it, Asten set his jaw with determination. He would not let master Halifax down. With a bated breath, he said, “As much as I’ll ever be.”
With those words, he took his place among the players.